How a First-Rate Walking Tour Gives this Popular Italian Destination Fresh Perspective
Our descent from the heat of a late Naples morning brought us cool relief, and the knowledge that with every step, we were moving back in time. Fiorella, our Context Italy tour guide had already led us through the cobbled streets of the historic center, in and out of magnificent churches and around the constant chaos that is Naples. She even gave us a lesson on the proper way to drink coffee like a Neapolitan. Now, the most fascinating experience among a morning full of fascinating experiences was about to begin.
A Unique Historic Center
Our Naples: Above and Underground tour by Context Travel began in the historic center of Naples, where our hotel was located. The first thing we learned was that unlike similar areas in most European cities, this neighborhood isn’t populated by the rich and famous. In fact, it’s just the opposite.
Here, historic buildings are occupied by locals whose families have been living in the same apartments for many generations. “And the tragedy”, Fiorella explained, “is that the people don’t have the money or the desire to maintain the buildings.”
But, as Fiorella pointed out, what the area lacks in TLC, it makes up for with its authenticity. She also told us that you can always find something nice behind even the most drab exterior. Buildings on these narrow streets back on to each other with tended gardens terraces and courtyards separating them.
The second thing we learned is that there are still three identifiable streets which run straight and narrow in an east west direction and originated with the Greeks. The one furthest south is locally known as Spaccanapoli (officially named Via Benedetto Croce) and appears to literally split the city in two. Today Spaccanapoli is the main pedestrian thoroughfare for tourists as it allows access to a number of Naples more important sights. What makes these streets unique is that the same street plan has been maintained through the Roman period and beyond.
As we strolled, Fiorella pointed out apartment buildings that had been divided into separate living spaces from what had been grand palazzi, once owned by Naples’s wealthiest families. Many of these apartments are used as student housing because of the close proximity of the University of Naples.
On some of the buildings, you can still see a coat of arms, and well maintained original staircases. These buildings belong to people who have both the means and the desire to preserve the historical integrity of their tiny piece of old Naples.
Despite the crumbling brickwork, graffiti and decay, the area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. More important, Fiorella, who has lived there for 15 years, is in love with it. Although she is often frustrated by the vandalism and neglect, there’s no other place she’d rather call home.
Tales and Traditions
The first building we entered was the Church of Gesù Nuovo. Like so much of the historic center of Naples, the plain exterior of the church contrasted drastically with its rich baroque interior. Although fascinating in its history, a feast for the eyes with its exquisite inlaid marble and extravagant with its two magnificent organs, the church was also a catalyst for several of Fiorella’s tales of local traditions unique to the area.
In this part of Naples, religion and superstition are intertwined. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the reliquaries, filled with glass and carved wooden boxes, containing – for lack of a better term – pieces of saints – and the two side chapels crammed with silver ex-votos. These tiny solid silver representations of human body parts – stomachs, breasts, lungs, ears – as well as complete figures of men, women and children are brought to be displayed in the chapel by believers in a gesture of thanks for the healing of the corresponding body part.
Each chapel bears the name of a canonized physician; one from the fourth century and one from the 20th. The chapels have become popular peaceful retreats where local doctors come to find inspiration.
The ex-votos can only be found in the historic center, and cost between 35 and 80 Euros. Area jewelry shops sell these traditional silver symbols along with trendier versions of common and not-so-common animals.
An Unlikely Foursome
It is difficult to select only a few high points of our Context Italy tour, because there were so many. One that stood out, however was the Santa Chiara Complex. Behind a high stone wall stood a magnificent Gothic church, a smaller church with which it shared a common wall, a breathtakingly beautiful cloister and, of all things, the remains of an ancient Roman thermal bath.
The Santa Chiara Complex was built between 1313 and 1340, a product of the faith and determination of King Robert of Anjou – known as Robert the Wise for his dedication to, and patronage of, the arts – – and his queen, Sacha of Majorca.
Unusual in many ways, one of the most obvious oddities of the church is the absence of an apse, Behind the high altar, flanked by the friar’s choirs. lies Robert’s tomb, and behind Robert stands a wall. This wall separates the church from the smaller structure housing the nuns’ choir. Three screened windows allow the cloistered nuns to attend mass without being seen.
The cloister of the Clarisses was built to house 200 nuns, with a smaller area designated for friars. In 1742, Domenico Antonio Vaccaro gave new life to the cloister with the addition of cheerful hand-painted majolica tiles. The tiles, octagonal columns, and primary colors of yellow, green and blue are unique in their contrast with the austere lifestyle of the cloistered nun.
Unlike the Clarisses of Granada, the nuns who lived here had a beautiful outdoor area in which to walk, with tiled benches on which to sit, and overhead, a pergola of grape vines to shade them from the heat. Fiorella recalled how she would come there as a student at the university to enjoy the shade and cooling breezes between classes.
Unfortunately, a difficult choice had to be made. It was discovered that the grapes were causing damage to the precious tiles, so the pergola had to go in favor of preserving history.
Today, only three elderly nuns remain, and they have been moved to a smaller area of the complex. In a complete 180, Franciscan monks now occupy a small area of the cloister where the nuns used to live, pray and enjoy their private outdoor sanctuary.
We passed through the interior of the cloister with its painted ceiling, high walls and blessedly cool temperature. And shortly thereafter, we encountered the Roman thermal baths.
Though not nearly as well preserved as the baths at Pompeii and Herculaneum, enough of the original structure remained to make us marvel at the ingenuity of the Roman engineers. The lead pipes, double brick walls that allowed heat from the furnace to circulate in the gap between the walls and heat the water, and the furnace itself were mind-boggling. But most interesting was the story of how this archaeological treasure emerged after having been hidden just below the surface for centuries.
The church had been destroyed after an allied bomb struck the complex in 1943. The baths were discovered During the reconstruction of the church.
Accidental discoveries are nothing new to Naples, and although not nearly as violent as the uncovering of the baths, the ways in which some of the underground areas were located are just as fascinating. But first, let’s take a break.
By the time we entered the small coffee bar, owned and operated by a jovial barista named Marco, we were definitely ready for a pick-me-up and a lesson in how to drink coffee like a Neapolitan. Fiorella spelled out the one hard and fast rule for us. “You can ride a scooter without the helmet,” she intoned, “but you never drink water after coffee.”
Before we were allowed to indulge in our tiny cups of espresso, we were served a glass of water, no ice, and according to Marco, carbonated water is better than flat.
With the obligatory glass of water out of the way, we moved on to the main event. Marco’s coffee was strong, thick and absolutely heavenly. It was hot, as was the cup. I couldn’t quite see the point of the heated cup, because it didn’t take more than two or three sips to make the rich brew vanish. But that didn’t matter, this was what the good people of Naples did. So when in Naples…
Okay, back to our tour.
Down Under Neapolitan Style
At San Lorenzo Maggiore, we descended a staircase that took us down approximately 40 feet, where we found ourselves at the bottom of what Fiorella, referred to as “the Naples Lasagna.”
The city is a series of layers built one on top of another from rock known as tufo. The Greeks laid down the first layer some time during the fourth century BC. Then along came the Romans, and added their layer of brickwork on top of the large Greek stones.
At that time, the spot where we now stood was at street level.
As we slowly walked a street that paralleled the one running above us, we stopped at various openings to take in the characteristics of first century rooms, along with Fiorella’s detailed explanations of each chamber’s purpose. Her vivid narrative made it easy to imagine this place bustling with merchants, customers, laundry workers, bakers and – there’s no escaping them – politicians.
Remains of what is believed to have been a. Roman market, a room with a pass-through in one wall, – thought to have been a restaurant – leading to a room containing what could easily pass for a modern pizza oven with its domed roof and small opening and what was obviously an ancient laundry with a row of tubs and drainage were only a few of the wonders we saw among the remnants of what once had been a vibrant commercial hub of the city.
Imagination easily took flight in this underground museum, but in reality, the streets, tunnels and openings were part of a skeleton. The grooves in the ground in front of the shops made it clear that doors were once slid open and shut, but the doors, signs and other evidence that commerce had once taken place were gone. According to Fiorella, volcanic ash, such as the gift Mount Vesuvius, bestowed upon Pompeii, did a much better job preserving history than the mud from the catastrophic flood that buried this area of Naples. Fiorella guided my hand to an area of wall still damp from the flood that occurred before the fifth century AD.
This area of the underground is a small part of what has been uncovered by subway construction, stone masons and other accidental discoveries. And I have told you of only a fraction of what we saw. This is ancient history at its most basic level, and we were privileged to have seen it with Fiorella’s guidance and perception.
Cameos, Pizza and Good Advice
The Ancient Naples tour was the most comprehensive and enjoyable historic tour Simon and I had ever experienced, and we’ve experienced some amazing ones. But wait, there was more.
Along with Fiorella’s prowess as a tour guide, she proved to be of assistance in other important areas. For example, in response to our question about where to find the best pizza – yes, in my world, that’s critical – she suggested Via Tribunalli, a busy street lined with an eclectic assortment of pizza restaurants, all of them excellent. We, followed her suggestion, and our noses, and she was right.
When I happened to mention I was researching an article on cameo making for an assignment for an online magazine, Fiorella ended our tour by taking us to a tiny cameo museum upstairs from a shop selling hand-crafted cameos. This unsolicited kindness enabled me to learn more about the history and process via a video and from speaking with an employee of the cameo shop.
Our visit to Pompeii and Herculaneum two days later might have been an exercise in frustration and misery had we not taken Fiorella’s advice. She suggested we visit Herculaneum in the late morning, grab some lunch and arrive at Pompeii after 3:30 in the afternoon. As she had predicted, it wasn’t crowded with cruise ship and other throngs of tourists, and we navigated the site much more efficiently than we would have in we had. stuck with our original plan
So who is this Italian goddess of all things Naples? Fiorella Squillante is a passionate lover of history and the arts, who has an uncanny ability of knowing exactly what her tour clients need at any given moment. Her rich descriptions and detailed explanations, as well as invitations for me to touch specific surfaces and objects provided additional texture and dimension to her words.
Fiorella’s credits include a degree in modern languages. To no one’s, surprise, she is a specialist in art history and Neapolitan culture and art. When not introducing tourists to her ‘Naples Lasagna’, Fiorella works with primary museums in Naples, as well as abroad with Friends of Museums. She is president of a cultural association, “Fine Arts”, and in her spare time, Fiorella writes about Naples and Campania for guide books, and has written one of her own on Neapolitan art and architecture, “Naples in 3 days”.
Fiorella is gifted with intelligence, charm, professionalism and a wicked sense of humor. Add to this her genuine passion for the city she calls home, and it’s no wonder we left Naples with an appreciation and understanding of the city and its layered history we would never have experienced had we not taken the Ancient Naples: Above and Underground tour with Fiorella and Context Italy.
Context Travel has developed an international network of scholars and specialists in the fields of archaeology, art history, cuisine, urban planning, history, environmental science, and classics. These experienced individuals design and lead in-depth walking tours for small groups of no more than six, as well as private tours. The Ancient Naples: Above and Underground Small Group Tour can be reserved for $78.00 per person, or a private tour can be arranged for $318.00.
For more information, contact The Context Travel Italy Team
Home Page: http://contexttravel.com
Disclaimer: For this tour of Naples we were graciously hosted by Context Italy. However, all opinions are, as always, my own.
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